I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two interconnected ideas. Simply put they are what it feels like to so completely be the outsider (and what I plan on doing with this newfound empathy) and what more subtly is contributing to this feeling. A warning before I begin, the analysis of my outsider-ness is going to make it sound like I feel much more sad, depressed, and isolated than I really do. It’s a function of taking a more profound look at the emotion, but feeling like a stranger is only one of many feelings I’m experiencing. Entonces, no te preocupes. If anything, I’m feeling more and more connected every day.
In Chile I am an outsider. I am the foreigner, the stranger. Sometimes this makes me interesting, intriguing, an artifact to study, which at least means I get some attention. Most of the time though, it means that when I’m in a new situation, with a new group of Chileans, I’m constantly at a disadvantage. I can never be sure of what is appropriate to do, of who I am supposed to or allowed to be approaching and what is the best way to do it. I usually think it’s incredibly obvious that I’m not from here, and therefore someone should come up to me and tell me what’s going on and offer to be my guide. I don’t know why I feel entitled to that. And anyway, it doesn’t usually happen. And thus I am left with the feeling that no one wants to know me. There have been numerous situations in which I have stood or sat with one other American in a room full of Chileans and we have had long and detailed discussions about whether someone is going to come talk to us. “Oh, that guys is coming towards us! Oh no he just walked past,” or “ maybe if we ask that girl where the bathroom is she’ll realize we’re not from here and we can strike up a conversation.” It sounds pretty sad, but it often goes that way. After spending the past (almost) 21 years of my life figuring out the social rules of the United States and finally achieving at least competence if not fluency, I feel like someone has changed the rules on me in the middle of the game and I suddenly have no idea what’s going on. Were it actually a game, that would simply not be fair. But it’s not, it’s life, and people often say that life’s not fair.
I’ve therefore been contemplating a lot what it means to be the outsider. For me it boils down to that feeling of being at a cultural disadvantage because everyone has a shared knowledge that you’re left out of, and it also definitely encompasses that paralyzing fear that no one really cares that you might be feeling that way and no one wants to help you out. Where has all this contemplation left me? Maybe it’s because it’s a new year and I’m thinking about resolutions, but I’ve come to a very strong one. I resolve to try to be the link when I go home. In the US or in situations in which I’m the one who knows the rules, I’m usually not the one to go approach the stranger. It’s not because I don’t want to know them or because I don’t care. It’s because I’m scared of them. I don’t want to be condescending, I don’t think I, as the normal one, am interesting enough to talk to them, the novel one. I’ve seen me, sitting in the corner with the other extranjera, perhaps interspersing words in the home language, and thought that these people would want nothing to do with the boring home culture me. But looking in from the outside, that seems completely illogical to me. That someone would be afraid to come approach me, the helpless foreigner who doesn’t even know how to properly buy avocadoes in the grocery store, seems outrageous. Who could be afraid of me?! So now when I go home I am promising Erin the gringa, the foreigner, the desconocida, that when I’m back on top and I’ll remember what this feels like. Not just with people who are literally from a different country, but anyone who doesn’t really know what’s up. I’m going to look for them and find them and offer them a connection. And if they really are too cool for me, then as they say in Chile, filo (whatever).
Part two of this entry is that I’ve started to realize that beyond the languages of spanish and english, a huge barrier to building profound relationships with Chileans is that I have an incredibly hard time reading them. They use different tones of voice to mean different things and different facial expressions to represent the same emotions. I’ve lived with my host parents for six weeks and I still don’t feel like I know them as well as I knew the people on my freshman hall after one week. I know that’s a different situation, but the point is that being here I lose yet another tool I’m used to having, the ability to read people. It’s a lot harder to understand someone’s personality when you speak a different language, and that makes the friend making proccess all the slower. But, I’m making progress. We’ve been hanging out with students from our university more, and on Thursday for the first time I hung out with a Chilean (and some of my US friends) and felt like everything was translating. We were understanding each others’ senses of humor, we were joking around with him. I felt like my personality came across and I felt like I got to know him. Maybe it’s just that he’s the first person I’ve met here who I legitimitely connect with as friends, and I’ve been blaming the language barrier. I don’t exactly know what it was, but we just clicked with him. We got along so well—the conversation never died. So yeah, connecting is harder than in the states for sure, and every day I encounter a situation where I screw up something simple because I just didn’t know the system and no one thought to explain it because it’s second nature here. But, I’m not making the same mistakes twice and I’m learning a lot, and I’m glad I’m getting a glimpse into what it feels like to be the outsider because I feel like it will make me a better person in the long run.